Abstracts 2011-2012

September 2011   David Urquhart of Braelangwell 1805-77,   Sandy Thomson

The first meeting of the 2011/12 season commenced with a talk by member Sandy Thomson on the eccentric figure of David Urquhart. David was born at Braelangwell on the Black Isle, one of the Urquhart family estates, in 1805. His unusual upbringing, travelling through Europe with his widowed mother and a series of tutors and attending wildly diverse educational establishments, no doubt influenced his unconventional life.

He fought in support of the Greeks in their War of Independence against the Turks, but then travelled extensively in the Ottoman Empire only to become a fanatic Turkophile. He was obsessive about Turkish culture, found favour with the Sultan and fostered links with Turkish Government ministers. He was taken into the British diplomatic service in Constantinople, but his career was short. He preferred to spend his time engaged in all things Turkish and he was soon recalled to London being regarded as endangering the peace of Europe.

David Urquhart distrusted the expansionist Russian Empire and even regarded Lord Palmerston as a Russian agent. Yet despite spending 20 years whipping up anti-Russian sentiment, he opposed Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War against Russia.  His logic was that the Turks were well able to conduct a heroic war themselves and that Britain was only concerned about securing its own interests.

David Urquhart was a writer, a politician, a pioneer of adult education and ultimately devoted his latter life to advancing a system of international law. He was both a celebrated and derided character in his lifetime but probably the main reason he is known was because he introduced Turkish baths into Great Britain.

October 2011   James Thomson of Tain  — A Highlander in Quebec,   Estelle Quick

Estelle Quick, a freelance museum consultant (as well as Cromarty’s own sub-postmaster), captivated members of the History Society with her account of the life and times of James Thompson of Tain. Her studies of James have revealed a long and extraordinary life, which she recounted with enthusiasm.

James was born in Tain in 1733, the son of a kirk officer and grandson of a stonemason, with whom he worked for a time. Despite living in a pro-Government town during the time of the Jacobite Uprising, he witnessed the reprisals that affected the lives of Highlanders after Culloden. His first language was Gaelic, although he did learn to read and write English – skills that were to prove invaluable when he was part of a regiment where many soldiers only conversed in Gaelic. His engineering skills were also utilised in his British army career.

James left Tain in 1957, when he signed up as a Sergeant in the 78th Fraser Highlanders, a regiment raised to fight in North America. In the six years that followed, James and the regiment took part in the conquest of Canada against the French. The regiment was commended by General Woolf; they fought with both musket and broadsword in harsh conditions and deprivations over a prolonged period. James took part in the Siege of Louisburg, the capture of Quebec and witnessed the surrender of Montreal.

He decided to remain in Canada after the war ended and worked as an engineer, achieving high office. His marriage to a French Canadian woman, which produced six children, ended in tragedy when he was the only family member to survive a fire. He married again later and had several more children – his sons holding important positions due to their father’s connections. James was an active Freemason, becoming Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Canada. His notes and letters are an important source of information concerning Canadian Freemasonry. He was a regular guest of the Governor General and became a celebrated character, being the last survivor of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

He survived to the age of 97 and had been caught up in many important historic events. His accounts of his personal experiences were faithfully recorded by one of his sons and earned for himself the title “Bard of the Fraser Highlanders”. Estelle used a number of these accounts to illustrate the contemporary events that had shaped his life.

November 2011   Ferries of the Black Isle,   Dr Jim Mackay

Popular local speaker, Jim Mackay, attracted a full house when he gave a very entertaining talk to the Cromarty History Society on the ferries that have operated around the Black Isle. The area, with its firths, rivers, estuaries and peninsulas, was an inevitable location for an abundance of ferry operators, serving both longer distance journeys and short local ferry travel.

Jim pointed out that most roads on the Black Isle ended at a ferry crossing, since transport for both personal journeys and commercial purposes depended on them in the past. Crossings were generally located where the waters narrowed – not necessarily the safest places. Sail boats, rowing boats, steamships and pleasure cruisers plied for trade around our waters. They proved not to be the safest methods of transport – there were many incidents resulting in loss of life due to bad weather, overloading and drunken ferrymen. The worst was the loss of 99 lives when the Meikle Ferry sank in 1809.

Many families associated with the operation of ferries around our shores were well established in the trade, with long family traditions. Jim mentioned many characters – Charlie the Ferry, Captain Jock and William the Wheeler – which brought the history of bygone ferry travel alive. The Watsons of Cromarty were a “dynasty” of ferrymen.

The biggest and most important was the Kessock Ferry with its heavy traffic demands. Foulis Ferry had the longest crossing and was typical of ferry terminals with its grain store. The Cromarty Ferry was the most famous, with its historical importance as the “King’s Ferry”.
Nowadays, we’re more likely to see cruise liners on our shores. Improvements in road quality, transport links, new bridges and causeways have resulted in only one of the fifteen crossings remaining operational (Cromary-Nigg). However, the names of the settlements on the Black Isle tell the story of past dependence.

December 2011   The Execution of John Adam,   Dr Graham Clark

At the Christmas meeting in December, Cromarty History Society was entertained with an engaging talk from local speaker, Graham Clark, about John Adam – the last person to die by public execution in Inverness.

John Adam, born in Angus in 1804, was tried at the Circuit Court in Inverness in 1835 for the murder of his wife Jane. Graham Clark described John’s life with its web of deceit, womanising, illegitimate children and continual attempts to evade responsibility. This included using a pseudonym, John Anderson, to hide his identity after stealing money and deserting the army.

He eventually married Jane Brechin, a former lover from Montrose and eighteen years his senior, to appropriate her money to fund his life with his common law wife Dorothy. He brought Jane to Inverness on the pretence of working to establish a home for them on the Black Isle. However, whilst Jane lived in lodgings in Inverness, John lived with Dorothy in Dingwall.

John brutally murdered Jane, supposedly on the way to their new home. He dumped her body in a derelict cottage in Mullins Wood in the parish of Redcastle. But the body was found a week later by children. A murder handbill was rapidly published and circulated around churches. The description of Jane and the belongings found with her body prompted recognition both in Inverness and Montrose, together with a description of the man who had visited her. An astonishing achievement combining police work and social networking!

John was quickly arrested, taken to prison in Inverness and tried. He pleaded not guilty, claiming that all the evidence was circumstantial. The guilty verdict was unanimous. The court the dispensed justice promptly and he was executed on 10 October 1835 at the Longman in front of 8,000 onlookers.

There were further executions after John’s in Inverness, but they were no longer public affairs, rather taking place within the confines of Porterfield Prison. John’s remains, initially buried at the Tollbooth in Inverness, were subsequently moved three times. There is a plaque at the current Police Headquarters in Inshes suggesting that this is the last site of his remains.  Jane Brechin’s body was interred at St. Clements parish church in Dingwall. But what happened to Dorothy? That remains an enigma still to be solved.

January 2012   Post-War Cromarty — 1945 to 1975,   Sandy Thomson and David Alston

A talk on post-war Cromarty (1945-1976) was the culmination of a series of lectures presented to the society by local members Sandy Thomson and David Alston. Their popular presentations have covered national and local history from the medieval period up to more recent times. This final talk acknowledged that many in the audience would have direct knowledge of much of the evening’s content and would probably wish to share their own opinions!

The Scottish context of the period was one of centralised state planning -  Hydro Board; Crofters Commission; Forestry Commission and the Highlands and Islands Development Board. It was a period of considerable industrial change – traditional industries declined and new industries came to the fore – most significantly, those related to the North Sea oil boom. The European Economic Community was well-established by the time that Britain joined in 1973 and its policies had an overwhelming impact on all sectors. This period also witnessed the beginnings of the movement towards a Scottish Parliament. There was a revival and development of Scottish identity.

As far as Cromarty was concerned, it seemed that all of the industrial developments in the area were taking place on the other side of the Firth. It was a time of concern for the decline of the population. The 1971 census recorded a population of below 500 for the first time. Much of the housing was empty, derelict or in poor condition. The Cromarty Development Committee was established to address Cromarty’s problems and some detailed surveys were undertaken that shed light on the actual situation and brought forth a number of development proposals. It was suggested that Cromarty’s future economic livelihood should be built on its exceptional architectural heritage, promoting tourism, developing itself as an arts and craft centre and ultimately encouraging more people to move to the town. A dominant feature of local politics was the split between the pro and anti development positions. The two lairds of the period – Colonel Ross and Michael Nightingale – exercised their own impact on the community. As a “small burgh”, Cromarty Town Council was responsible for a variety of public services and extracts from their meetings were read out to add a flavour of the period.

The building of the council house estate, Townlands Park, made a real impact by bringing many incomers to the town. Jobs at the HiFab yard at Nigg and the regular ferry services added to the revival and new craft businesses also brought a fresh vibrancy.

As expected, many people added their own observations at the end of the presentation. There was speculation as to when anyone would be bold enough to continue the story to present times!

February 2012   HMS Natal —A Re-appraisal,   Paul Monk

Paul Monk, Trustee and Curator of the Cromarty Courthouse Museum and an active member of the Society, spoke on a subject that he declared has become a “passion” of his. He moved to the Black Isle a few years ago and lives in a house which looks on to the wreck buoy of HMS Natal. Since moving there he has explored the history of the Natal and those who have been associated with the ship.

The first part of his talk covered the story of the ship leading up to the First World War.
The ship was launched in 1905 in Barrow in Furness. It was named “Natal” in recognition of the funds given by the Province of Natal, South Africa, for the massive ship building programme that the British Government had embarked on. The Province donated more money per head of population than any other British dependency. It cost about £435,000 and was one of four Warrior Class cruisers, regarded as the most technically advanced cruisers of their time.

Very quickly the Natal became part of the “Particular Services Squadron” – called upon for special duties. It was a trusted ship by virtue of its turnout, seamanship and efficiency as a shooting ship. One of its special duties involved transporting the body of the US Ambassador to Great Britain back to New York after he had died in post. During its passage it met with one of the worst storms in a generation and sustained damage that required emergency repairs at sea and then extensive repairs when it arrived in the United States. Once back home the Natal then went for a long refit.

Paul showed a series of photographs which gave an insight into the lives of the officers and seamen of the Natal – a flavour of the “happy” times before the 1915 tragedy in the Cromarty Firth. On 30 December 1915 there was an explosion on the Natal, when it was anchored off Invergordon. 421 crew and civilian visitors lost their lives in the explosion, though many survived. The wreck of the ship was in the Firth for many years, before being demolished in the 1930s.

Paul is currently working on a website to compile information about the casualties and survivors of the Natal. He spoke about two contrasting fatalities – Ada May Bennett, the young wealthy wife of one of the engineers, who was a guest on board, attending a film show, and Stoker Albert Farley. Albert was an underage member of the crew – only 16 at his death (despite the fact that his joining up papers state his age as 18). His letters to his mother are preserved in the Naval Museum at Portsmouth and Paul read from them to give an insight into the life of a young recruit.

March 2012   Hugh Miller's Visit to Olney,    Dr Lindsay Hemy

One of our members, Lindsay Hemy, gave a delightful talk this month on a lesser-known side of Cromarty’s Hugh Miller. In September 1845, Hugh Miller decided to take a trip to England. He described this journey in his book “First impressions of England and its people”. Lindsay used his text and her own experience in recently tracing his footsteps to tell the story of his expedition, which was in effect a pilgrimage to Olney, the home of writer and poet William Cowper. Hugh Miller greatly admired Cowper, who wrote around the same time as Burns.

Miller travelled for two months, using coach and train and finally walked to reach his destination of Olney (now famous for it’s pancake race). It is a small town in Buckinghamshire and at the time of Miller’s visit had a population of around 1200. Olney had the first workhouse, which gives an indication of the poverty that existed there. Two friends, William Cowper and John Newton, lived there for a time and together wrote the famous Olney hymns including Amazing Grace.

The journey didn’t go smoothly. Miller was tired and needed a holiday. He found himself leaving a Scotland bathed in sunshine for a wet and cold England. The weather prevented him doing some of the things he had intended and at times he felt unsafe. On one stage of his walking journey he was accosted by two men on the road. He had found himself in Buckinghamshire at the time of the bare-knuckle championships, with its attendant drunken and brawling crowds.

However, Miller continued in order to accomplish his mission to visit Cowper’s houses, gardens and the area of the inspiration for his poetry and literary achievements. Although Miller and Cowper were from totally different backgrounds, they shared a particular knowledge of this life. Both were outsiders looking in on life and indeed both died in despair.

In using Miller’s prose, Lindsay was able to show his flair as a travel writer and observer and she argued that had his life opportunities been different, he would have been remembered more for these talents.

April 2012   The Wardie Legacy,   Paul Monk

At the AGM of the Cromarty History Society, members were reminded of the varied and interesting programme of talks presented during the 2011/12 session. The Society acts as a Friends Group to the Cromarty Courthouse Museum, so in a fitting end to the season, Paul Monk (curator to the Courthouse Museum) was invited to talk about recent acquisitions and developments.

Paul told the meeting, how early last year a letter arrived at the museum from an Edinburgh solicitor regarding the estate of the recently deceased Miss Agnes Isabella Hunter Wardie. Miss Wardie had bequeathed a small legacy to the museum of pictures, ceramics, a book and miscellaneous items. Paul brought a number of the objects from this inheritance to illustrate his talk and explained the process of putting such items into a museum’s collection.

He concluded that Miss Wardie must have visited the area during the 1970’s or 80’s and acquired some of her “Cromarty collection” at this time. Of particular interest was a needlework sampler crafted by a “Catherine Thomson of Cromarty”. It was suggested that this piece dated from the early 19th century, but further research needs to be carried out to establish its story.

Paul thanked the History Society for its recent donation, which had enabled the purchase of museum-standard storage items as well as a suitable bookcase to display some of the valuable books that had previously been kept in storage. He updated everyone on the new Courthouse exhibitions, in particular “Nigg Past and Future”, which includes a collection of old photographs of the rigs being built at Nigg and the people who were working there at the time.

Other Courthouse developments include the establishing of a community orchard in the grounds of the museum, in collaboration with the Cromarty Allotments and Gardens Society and an outdoor concert proposed in the summer in partnership with the adjacent Hugh Miller Museum.

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